The Inner Game of Tennis: Lessons on the Psychology of High Performance

The Inner Game of Tennis has got to be one of the strangest books on personal growth and success I’ve ever encountered.

Ostensibly written as a guide to improving your tennis game, it’s really a manually on mental mastery and high-achievement.

The core argument of the book is that at the highest levels of performance, it’s not technical, domain-specific skills that determine who succeeds and who doesn’t. Everyone who gets to the top of their field has already mastered most of these technical skills.

Instead, the best of the best are able to achieve and sustain peak performance and excellence because they’ve learned to master what the author calls “The Inner Game.”

Through the disciplined development of our mental habits, we allow our fullest potential and ability to express itself without interference or constraint. Thus, to master your work in any area, you must learn first to master your own mind.

What follows is a collection of quotations from the book followed by my own brief thoughts and reflections on them.


On Mastery

Neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.

Most of us don’t even know there’s an inner game being played, much less that we’re losing badly. Time to suit up.

On Potential

When we plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.

Imagine how your life might be different if you really believed and regularly reminded yourself of the following:

I have inside me, at all times, my whole potential.

On Letting Go

Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding to them.

I suspect a big reason many people have a hard time with concepts like acceptance, mindfulness, and non-judgment is that they imagine these terms imply a kind of passivity and weakness. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Choosing to see reality for what it is without projecting our own baggage onto it is practically a superpower.

On Effort

The secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.

As a rule, I think effort is more important in practice than performance.

Applying lots of deliberate practice and effort when you are learning a skill tends to pay off. But when it comes to using the skill in a real-world situation, effort tends to interfere with what you’ve already learned and know.

On Self-Judgment

It is interesting to see how the judgmental mind extends itself. It may begin by complaining, “What a lousy serve,” then extend to “I’m serving badly today.” After a few more “bad” serves, the judgment may become further extended to “I have a terrible serve.” The, “I’m a lousy tennis player,” and finally, “I’m no good.” First the mind judges the event, then groups events, then identifies with the combined event and finally judges itself.

This is why it’s essential to learn how to quickly catch and redirect negative self-talk. If it goes unchecked, this vicious cycle of self-judgment and shame it produces quickly becomes so massive that it’s hard to escape from.

As an old professor of mine used to say: Falling off the wagon isn’t the problem; it’s the wallowing around in the mud that kills you. Cultivate awareness of your own self-talk so you can nip it in the bud.

On Bad Habits

It is difficult to break a habit when there is no adequate replacement for it.

A corollary of this is that it’s surprisingly easy to break bad habits and establish positive ones when you have a meaningful, rewarding, clearly defined vision for an alternative habit that meets the same needs as the old one in a healthier, more productive way.

Bonus points if you also have a well-thought-out system for maintaining your new pattern of behavior.

On Labels

Judgmental labels usually lead to emotional reactions and then to tightness, trying too hard, self-condemnation, etc. This process can be slowed by using descriptive but nonjudgmental words to describe the events you see.

For performance to approach potential, get out of your own way and allow your hard-won talent to shine through.

Of course, easier said than done. When we’re in the mental habit of judgmental self-talk, it can feel more like something that happens to us rather than something we have control over.

Rather than trying to stop or eliminate this judgmental self-talk, crowd it out with simple observation and description.

On Positive Thinking

It is impossible to judge one event as positive without seeing other evens as not positive or as negative.

Positive thinking is still judgmental thinking. And while it may briefly feel good because it’s positive, we easily slip from one form of judgment to another.

Why not stop judging all together and simply notice things as they are, yourself included?

On Identity

If a mother identifies with every fall of her child and takes personal pride in every success, her self-image will be as unstable as her child’s balance.

Be careful where you choose to invest your identity and sense of self.

Anything outside of your direct control is generally a poor vehicle for identity investment—other people, specific feelings, money, fame.

Better identity investment behicles include hard work, kindness, curiosity, learning, generosity, and the like.

On Inner Peace

The best way to quiet the mind is not by telling it to shut up, or by arguing with it, or criticizing it for criticizing you. Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning how to focus it.

You’ve probably heard the phrase: What we resist persists. The question is: Okay, I’ll stop resisting… now what?

It’s not enough to simply move our attention away from an unproductive line of thinking like arguing with our own thoughts. We must become skilled in the art of redirecting our attention to something more valuable and productive. This has two parts:

  1. Have some appealing alternative objects of attention at hand. Cultivate objects of attention that lead to peace rather than stress. Hobbies are good.
  2. Practice the “move” of moving your attention from one object to another. Cultivate an attention training regimen.

On Competition

The need to prove yourself is based on insecurity and self-doubt. Only to the extent that one is unsure about who and what he is does he need to prove himself.

Here’s a paradox of high-performance psychology: the less your identity is on the line while performing, the better you will perform. The threat of damaging our identity always interferes with performance.

Leave your self on the sidelines.

On Concentration

The greatest lapses in concentration come when we allow our minds to project what is about to happen or dwell on what has already happened.

The capacity for mental time travel is arguably our species’ most profound gift and mental advantage. Because we can remember the past an imagine the future, we’re capable of tremendous feats. It also opens us up to worry, rumination, and distraction.

For the sake of your mental health and your productivity, practice holding your attention in the here and now.

On Control

Stability grows as I learn to accept what I cannot control and take control of what I can.

The whole point of practice and preparation is that our minds and bodies learn how to achieve our desired goals and outcomes. For high-achievers, poor preparation and lack of effort are rarely the problems. Instead, we sabotage ourselves by trying too hard and interfering with what we’ve already trained ourselves to accomplish.

This misapplication of effort is fundamentally a problem of control. To reach the highest echelons of achievement, we must be willing to release control and trust ourselves.

On Focus

Since the mind seems to have a will of its own, how can one learn to keep it present? By practice. There is no other way. Every time your mind starts to leak away, simply bring it gently back.

Whenever I talk about the importance of training your attention to stay focused on one object and to gently return it to that object when you’ve become distracted, I invariably get the following response: Yeah, yeah, sounds great. But how do I actually do it?

People want some kind of secret tip or trick or hack to improve their attentional abilities and focus. Which is like saying: Yeah but how do I actually get on the treadmill and start running?

On Keeping Your Head

The most indispensable tool for human beings in modern times is the ability to remain calm in the midst of rapid and unsettling changes. Inner stability is achieved not by burying one’s head in the sand at the sight of danger, but by querying the ability to see the true nature of what is happening and to respond appropriately.

Observation is the first step in the Scientific Method for a reason: theorizing, analyzing, and most other forms of thinking tend to be misguided without a little data first.

On Winning

Wining is overcoming obstacles to reach a goal, but the value in winning is only as great as the value of the goal reached.

Goals without strategy are worthless, as are strategies without the right goals.

Strive to be both tactician and general, technician and CEO, psychologist and philosopher.

On Excellence

Our ability to thrive and succeed in any realm is defined by our capacity to form relationships.

And while we can achieve much building relationships with things in the external world—people, places, objects, knowledge, skills—the development of mastery and achievement of excellence requires that we cultivate a relationship with ourselves, with our own minds.

8 Comments

Jaime May 1, 2019 Reply

Perfect! I need to be closer !

Nick Wignall May 6, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Jaime!

Daniel August 22, 2019 Reply

Hi Nick, great article. I have a few goals to look at in accordance with what I’m processing from having absorbed here. Great insight and I keep going to the medium articles as well.

Charlotte Soeder May 2, 2019 Reply

I’m easily getting distracted… want too many things happened too fast. Thanks for reminding me on focusing ????

Nick Wignall May 6, 2019 Reply

Glad it was helpful, Charlotte!

Roberta Gallingani May 2, 2019 Reply

If teachers would teach that way at our child, they will grow as confident adult.

Nick Wignall May 6, 2019 Reply

Yeah, I think it’s a big question of how to teach mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

PK Nagin May 9, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this clear, simple and useful summary of the key points towards mastery of the inner game.

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